At the end of anything you can always look back and find things that you could have done better as well as things that went really well. As I look back there were several things that we did right.
First off, we went! It’s always hard to find the right time to take an extended break from daily living. There is never a perfect time to leave your friends and your job and school behind, even if it is only temporary. None the less, we made a decision that the time had come and we went. I’ll never regret this decision. It was quality time spent as a family that never could have been replicated at home. Together we had many experiences and learned many new things about ourselves and others.
Of course, there can be too much togetherness. Along the way we had a few places with 3 bedrooms so each kid could have their own room and we also occasionally got 2 hotel rooms so kids and adults could have a little space. Having these breaks from the close quarters of one room was great and the few extra dollars we spent was worth it.
Some of the best experiences were when we got off the tourist circuit and volunteered or worked in a community. Our volunteer and work away weeks were some of the most memorable that we had. We got to interact with real people to see the way they really live and feel a sense of accomplishment in our work. There are a number of volunteer sites out there and workaway.info is very easy to use (though it does require a registration fee to contact a host). A similar program is WWOOF in which we participated in previous travels.
We also found that the kids and even ourselves could physically do much more than we had expected. They hiked further and higher than I ever guessed they would. Most of the time they even seemed to enjoy it. Before we left I had abandoned the idea of visiting Choquequirao in addition to or instead of Machu Piccu. After seeing the kids hike through Chile and Bolivia I believe this trek was well within reach. Unfortunately, this part of our trip was pre-planned and there wasn’t time to add on another 4 or 5 days.
Many times when I talk to people about traveling for six months they comment that it must have required a lot of planning. The truth is we didn’t plan that much in advance at all and this is one of the things that I think we did right. We did use up a few days here and there planning for the next leg of the journey and this required decent internet access which was occasionally hard to come by. However, we did get tired of being on the go and a forced down day wasn’t usually a bad thing. We got to see which things we were loving and which things we felt we could pass over and had the flexibility to stay or go depending on our mood. We did have a few key dates where we had to be in specific cities either for work or activities that had to be pre-booked. These were good because they kept us moving, but flying by the seat of our pants was generally our modis operandi and it worked well. The one exception to this was Cuba. The lack of internet and tourist information was a shock to our systems and we should have planned much better ahead of time.
Finally, I’m so glad we took the time to take Spanish lessons at the beginning of the trip. Our Spanish was much improved over the language skills we arrived in South America with. Learning the language not only made our trip easier but it made it a better experience. We could understand the Spanish only tours, we could participate in volunteer projects that weren’t available to non-Spanish speakers, and we could converse with the locals. I don’t think that speaking Spanish is a strict necessity for travel in South America, but it sure does help.
There are also things we could have done better. First off, I would not book a package tour for Machu Piccu. We could have easily done all the same things that the package did for much less money and we wouldn’t have been on their schedule. It was nice to turn over the planning for a few days, but I didn’t enjoy being on someone else’s timeline.
We also question if bringing our own camping gear was worth it. Camping turned out to not be that much cheaper than staying in a hotel in most cases. We found very little free camping. However, there were some spots that we camped and it was absolutely amazing. Torres del Paine and the desert outside of San Pedro de Atacama stick out in my mind. Both of these places have rental equipment available in town though so it probably wasn’t necessary to have our own. Besides the down side of hauling around all the gear for months the biggest issue is that it never arrived home after we shipped it back. So, we were inconvenienced with extra bags, we didn’t camp as much as we thought we would, and we lost hundreds of dollars worth of gear in the mail. We’d probably do it differently next time. As part of our camping gear we brought a Platypus water filter and a Steripen. We used these extensively to sanitize the tap water. I would absolutely bring these again. We had very few intestinal issues and we saved hundreds of dollars and pounds of plastic by treating tap water instead of buying bottled water.
The most stressful hour of our trip occurred at the Lima airport as we were trying to board our flight to Ecuador. Although it is not an official government requirement for Americans, the airline, TAME, required us to have onward tickets out of Ecuador before we could board the plane. I cannot find this requirement anywhere on any official or travel website. It is not on the state department or Lonely Planet guidelines. We spent the hour before our flight frantically attempting to book a flight from Ecuador to Cuba. Our credit card was initially declined causing further stress in the whole process. We were within 5 minutes of missing the flight. We booked the TAME flights via Expedia and they did not notify us of this requirement, which I believe is a bit negligent on their part. The requirement is on TAME’s web site, but only under the FAQ in broken English. In Spanish it is in the travel requirements section, but I never thought to check.
Now that I think about it we had two other issues with Expedia. At a hotel in Ecuador we were supposed to contact the hotel ahead of time to arrange payment but we were unaware of this and so they cancelled our reservation. Also, our flight from Galapagos to the mainland changed to an earlier time and were never notified. We obviously missed that flight and had to endure a long sea crossing to the other Galapagos airport to leave the islands. I’m thinking now it’s best to book direct whenever possible, though we had few problems with our credit card being declined when we booked on Expedia.
A few minor things that are worth mentioning:
- Our banking fees added up after a while. Our Capital One card was great, but US Bank was a hassle to deal with setting our travel alerts and the 3% charge on every penny we pulled from the ATM was a bit much. I’ve heard that Santander is really good about foreign fees so I would look into this if we take an extended trip again.
- I wish we could have gotten to Patagonia a few weeks earlier.
- We learned to be more careful with our belongings after Brad got pick-pocketed in Santiago.
- We spent a couple hundred dollars on Malaria drugs that we didn’t use since I thought that we would go to the Amazon from Peru and we ended up going from Ecuador. A little advance planning would have helped here. We did use a discount code from GoodRX.com to buy them and I was able to donate them to worldmedicalrelief.org afterwards, so it could have been worse.
- No matter where we are, there is a struggle with the kids about the appropriate amount of screen time. Traveling to exotic lands does not significantly reduce the kids’ desire to stare at a tiny screen. I don’t know what to do about this, but it was a problem we encountered.
There you have it. The good and the bad. We wish you all many adventures in the future.